All posts by Adapt MC

Introducing Adapt MC

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When I founded Steeves Advisory Inc. in the spring of 2012, my plan was simple: find a way to do meaningful work, with the flexibility to do it from home (ideally gainfully) while my son is little. Six months later, I had a big problem: too much work, not enough time – the balance of family and professional life that I had cherished was suddenly at risk.

We brought on talented employees and contractors to meet the demand, and at around this time, I was introduced to Chris Hartman, who collaborated with me on many of Steeves Advisory’s most important projects.

Over the last few years Chris provided far more than just another pair of hands. He proved a fantastic addition to the analytical and organizational acumen that our clients sought. We quickly concluded there was much greater value to what we could deliver together then apart. For us, the next step was a no-brainer.

I’m incredibly thrilled to announce that Chris and I are launching a new firm this spring: Adapt MC.

Adapt embodies our passion for tackling confounding problems, as well as our commitment to growth, development and customized solutions. Anyone can deliver a process that has been tried a hundred times before, but the challenges that we face today are rarely predictable or repeatable.

Adaptability is the core of our vision of what consulting looks like when done exceptionally well: thoughtful, strategic and responsive in light of every unique situation. This takes creative energy as well as a deep understanding of the challenges that our clients face, and the strategies that have already been tried. We see Adapt as a nexus for a new generation of management consultants in Edmonton to work hand in hand with our mentors, clients, thought leaders, and community.

As an MC practice that focuses primarily on public sector clients and projects, we launch Adapt with a full recognition of the current provincial budget crunch; and the new rules governing procurement of consulting services in Alberta. In this context, we are committed to nurturing innovation within our industry to ensure that our services, and our business model, respond to the financial and operational imperatives of a sector facing incredibly tough choices.

When the public sector is pressured to do more with less, the need for innovation and real value are even greater. We are confident that there has never been a more important moment to do the hard work of building something that lasts – not as an outsider but as an ally committed to learning in the face of problems that evolve over time.

Our role as advisors is to support clients in taking manageable, meaningful steps toward a long-term, transformative vision, in the midst of complexity and even adversity. To understand what makes a problem hard, and how to make a plan and adjust it as conditions, people and pressures change.

Our mandate is clear: adapt. Adapt to help our clients deal with the shifting and challenging environments in which they work. Adapt to build strength in our clients’ organizations to weather whatever comes next.

Iterative and Incremental Change

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Yesterday, as I was following up on a suggestion from one of our Fall Project interview participants, I ended up chatting with a colleague about iterative versus incremental change.

It occurred to me that, while I’ve been using the word “iterative” for years, I’ve never really considered it’s nuances.

Through our Fall Project interviews, many public sector leaders have talked about the necessity of incremental change. This concept comes out of Charles Lindblom’s seminal work, “The Science of Muddling Through.” Lindblom argues that in a world of complex relationships and policy aspirations, we never have perfect enough information or processes to make perfect policy decisions. Instead, we are stuck using imperfect information and processes to make imperfect decisions. This forces us to depend on subjective interpretations of policy options, and leaves us at the mercy of interpersonal power dynamics among the participants in a given decision. Given this situation, policy advisors must persuade decision makers to act through painstaking, resource intensive, and lengthy negotiations that eek out policy choices one by one. As a result, while the vision driving policy advisors and decision makers may be at times transformative in nature, the pace of change is almost always incremental.

I am easily persuaded of Linblom’s argument, but I have also become wary of it in recent years. Not only does incremental change fail to effect transformational results in most cases, even after years of painstaking progress on an issue, but it can lesson the vision of what is possible. It seems often as though many of us become comfortable with the idea that incrementalism is necessary, and are satisfied with it (or at least resigned to it). My friend Katie Boothe, a political science professor at McMaster University, recently wrote an excellent article on this very subject.

Iterative change, on the other hand, is slightly different. An iterative change or process is one in which the participants believe it will be possible to go back and correct mistakes. To use a simple example, when drafting a report for an multi-stakeholder committee, it is often all but certain that most people around the table will disagree – fiercely – with something in the document. It can often be helpful in these cases to agree as a group in advance that an “iterative process” will be used. In other words, to agree that the report won’t be prefect, that it will require changes – in some cases significant ones – and that there will be a process through which mistakes and areas of concern will be addressed.

Iterative change, like incremental change, is based on the premise that information and processes are imperfect. But unlike incremental change, iterative change is not based on the long game of effecting transformational change bit by bit. It is more focused on the imperative for action, now, even when the action is imperfect. It humbly accepts that our attempts to solve problems won’t achieve illusive silver bullets, but it tries to do something good anyway, with optimism.

All this reflecting left me wondering if there isn’t an important distinction that needs to be made between incremental and iterative policy development approaches. In my musing, I drafted this graphic.

I’m interested in what others think about this. Is there a significant distinction between these approaches? Have others commented on it in the past? Can these approaches exist simultaneously? What are the differentiating characteristics?

Drop me a line.

Until next time!

Is faux collaboration killing innovation (and morale) in your organization?

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It is undeniable that collaboration is essential for innovation to occur on the scale needed to solve society’s most challenging problems, and achieve our most compelling goals. By creating the conditions for “integrative thinking”, collaboration can negate classic trade-offs and expand the boundaries of what is possible.

But, as I stated in an earlier post, it’s my opinion that collaboration is one of the most misunderstood and misused ideas in business today. I’d like to take a few minutes to unpack this notion, and suggest a few strategies for making sure faux collaboration doesn’t stand in the way of innovation in your organization.

Collaboration is, on one hand, a vision of sharing and improving one another’s ideas to come up with even better – and more innovative – concepts than those we can create in isolation. On the other hand, it’s become an imperative that has been incorporated into formal and informal measures of performance. Yet while the vision depends on openness, excitement, willingness, respectfulness, humour and capability of participants; the imperative encourages only the perception of collaboration, which can be created simply by having more than one person working on a given assignment.

Consequently, the imperative to collaborate can undermine the vision, because in many cases it leads to over-emphasis on the appearance of collaboration without enough attention paid to how people are actually working together and what results are being achieved.

This has resulted in a great deal of “faux collaboration” in which participants come to the table primarily to negotiate; and invitations to the table are often based on job titles rather than genuine shared interests. While there is certainly a legitimate place in business for negotiation, an inherent element of negotiation is trade-offs – the very thing true collaboration is meant to overcome.

Faux collaboration is not only a poor substitute for true collaboration; it can lead to a range of unintended consequences that actually weaken organizations. For example, it can contribute to dysfunctional governance structures by replacing clear accountabilities and authorities in hierarchies with vague decision processes, like committees, that appear collaborative but aren’t. In addition to not fostering transformative innovation, this stymies important day-to-day transactions and corporate strategy, setting the organization back rather than moving it forward.

Prevalence of faux collaboration can also contribute to organizational cultures in which negotiating skills are more highly valued than any of the conditions that would actually foster true collaboration, and the innovation it could foster.

It’s not necessarily wrong to try to build collaboration into an organization’s business model, to implement collaborative governance structures, or to expect employees to behave in a collaborative way. But these imperatives can allow the incentives for faux collaboration to flourish while the conditions needed for true collaboration – and innovation – go untended.

In my experience, there are (at least) two fundamental conditions that determine whether collaboration or negotiation will result. The first is whether participants are obligated to work together, such as a situation in which team members are selected on the basis of job titles or simply availability. While collaboration is possible in situations where participants are required to be present, it is more likely in situations where participants self-select because shared interests are automatic. These interests may be specific to the purpose of the collaboration, such as mutual commitment to the result; or extraneous, such as enjoyment of one another’s company.

When participants are obligated to work together, the second condition for true collaboration comes into play: genuine appreciation of one another’s contributions. This goes beyond simply respecting others’ rights to differ and treating one another politely. Genuinely valuing the contributions of others is not something that can be forced or mandated. It’s a rational and emotional judgment call made by individuals regarding the extent to which they agree with and trust their fellow “collaborators’” opinions, ideas, and competency. If this genuine appreciation isn’t eventually present among the participants, faux collaboration is – in my opinion – almost inevitable.

So what measures can be taken to promote legitimate, innovation-causing, collaboration; and to minimize the risk of faux collaboration? Based on the two conditions I described above, strategies that promote voluntary collaboration and genuine mutual appreciation among members of a team are needed. At the same time, it’s also important to employ non-collaborative methods for the sake of results when faux collaboration rears its head.

Here is my suggested approach. Steps 1 and 3 are intended as strategies for increasing the likelihood of authentic collaboration, and Steps 2 and 4 are strategies for avoiding faux collaboration.

1. Foster “pop-up” collaboration.

As I recently wrote in another post, the pop-up is one of the most iconic ways in which collaboration has yielded innovation in the economy today. While pop-ups are increasingly being mandated, the participants in grass-roots pop-ups are individuals that voluntarily unite to explore and showcase cutting edge and emerging techniques. Done well, pop-ups create experiences that expand consumers’ expectations of what’s possible and acceptable in a given industry.

In the context of today’s post, creating the conditions for pop-ups to thrive in your organization or sector is one possible way to encourage employees to collaborate authentically.

Another possibility builds on the principles of pop-ups: encourage self-forming groups and formalize teams of individuals that have demonstrated the ability to work well together. In this case, the potential for integrative thinking among participants is more important than whether their job titles and resumes create a sense of complete coverage of an issue.

2. Don’t use collaboration as a performance measure.

When people feel pressure to collaborate in order to meet formal or informal performance expectations, they have significant incentive to maintain the appearance of collaboration even when they don’t genuinely value the contributions of other participants. In extreme cases, individuals may even use the appearance of collaboration as cover for actions that actually serve to undermine an initiative.

Instead, measure performance on ability to work with others in a functional way, even if that means using negotiation, command and control, or other methods. Acknowledge that a range of strategies is appropriate – and legitimate – for achieving results, and that collaboration has a specific meaning and purpose that is not suited to all situations.

3. Measure performance based on individuals’ contributions to healthy team development.

Far from letting employees off the hook for collaboration, demand that employees develop skills and working styles that nurture a genuine appreciation of one another’s contributions. Specifically, mandate that employees be trained in and well educated about the processes, principles, and goals of team development. (A reasonably thorough Wikipedia entry on the classic Tuckman model of team development can be found here.) Moreover, hold managers and employees accountable for their contributions to a culture in which team development can occur.

4. When collaboration is critical, but the chemistry just isn’t there, change tack.

Especially when participants are obligated to be at the table, a group of individuals needs a certain amount of time to pass through the stages of team development (storming, norming, etc.) before the likelihood of authentic collaboration can be determined. Friction and disagreement in the initial stages of team formation are not red flags – in fact they can be incredibly positive. But if the group can’t find a way to constructively work through conflict, for example if team members begin to bury their opinions for the sake of politeness, the team has become dysfunctional and will not be able to collaborate.

There is no magic timeframe for this, but at a certain point it will become evident whether the group has the chemistry needed to achieve integrative thinking. At that moment, there are two possible options, other than maintaining the group and permitting faux collaboration to occur. The first is to disband the group and try another combination of individuals. The second is to maintain the group but change the form of working together from collaboration to something more functional.

There are many possible arguments against this proposed approach. “If we don’t demand collaboration, how will we ever get it?” “Can’t we fake it ‘till we make it?” “What if cliques of integrated thinkers emerge, leaving everyone else feeling excluded and unmotivated?” “What if someone’s toes get stepped on?” “We don’t want to send the message that collaboration is optional!”

But let’s be clear: collaboration is not a silver bullet that will result in high-performing organizations in the absence of other, complimentary strategies. It is not (in my opinion) better than negotiation, hierarchy, or other transactional approaches – it is simply different, and done for a specific purpose: to achieve integrated thinking and innovation.

In my view, collaborating less, but collaborating more deliberately and effectively is in no way giving up on the vision, or giving in to what is easy. It’s learning from experience, with the humility to admit when something isn’t working and change course as needed. A collaborative concept, indeed.

Can the “pop-up phenomenon” drive public sector innovation?

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The “pop-up” is one of the most iconic ways in which collaboration has yielded innovation in the economy today. Pop-up restaurants and boutiques, which seem to appear over-night, and disappear as quickly as they appear, bring creative minds together through a fun, often cutting-edge, always temporary, business venture. Once primarily ad hoc, pop-ups have recently caught the attention of marketing and PR professionals, many of whom now use pop-ups in corporate branding strategies.

While pop-ups are increasingly being mandated, the participants in grass-roots pop-ups are individuals that unite to showcase cutting edge techniques, talent, and emerging trends out of shared passion and excitement. Done well, pop-ups create experiences that expand consumers’ expectations of what is possible and acceptable in a given industry. Pop-ups generate demand for the individuals involved, for their products, and for their methods.

For example, a team of three chefs organizes a pop-up restaurant for a one-week period. Through the pop-up, the chefs have the opportunity to showcase their abilities and try newer, riskier, techniques than they would normally use in their full-time jobs. Even though only a small number of people are able to experience the pop-up first hand, word of mouth, digital and print communications reach a broad audience. Afterward, the restaurants of each chef might experience increased demand. And consumers might be more open to – or even come to expect – the avant garde cooking techniques and service approaches they experienced (or heard about) through the pop-up.

This same concept could be effective in public sector organizations that struggle to foster more effective – even innovative – ways of working. Pop-ups would enable visionary staff at any level to take the initiative to try something different, be it a new mobile application, a new style of flexible work arrangements, or a new approach to service delivery.

Pop-ups offer a highly interactive way to prototype new ideas, including those perceived as high-risk, without being overly threatening, because the pop-up is always time-limited. Even those who may disapprove of a given idea or oppose change in general can have little to take issue with, knowing that the pop-up will disappear as quickly as it appeared.

At least in principle, this has clear potential in operational and corporate areas like communications, IT, business planning, and human resources. Emerging techniques, especially in the field of digital communications and applications, have created endless potential for innovation in these areas – but are often seen as high risk and low reward. Implementing the pop-up concept in these areas could help test assumptions about the merit of new approaches and facilitate organizational learning in the process.

What is less clear is how public sector pop-ups would work in practice, how management would be involved in approving and “regulating” individual pop-ups, and whether there is application in areas other than basic operations – such as strategic policy. For example, would a pop-up Family Care Clinic be a useful way to deliver services on a short-term basis and/or generate discussion and feedback about how these new structures will work? Would a pop-up one-stop shop for disability services help test new ideas about integrated service delivery? What about pop-up citizen engagement?

To help explore some of these questions, I drafted this diagram on the lifecycle of a pop-up. However, I must add one major caveat – which is that no matter how tempting it is to turn this graphic into a process map, the bureaucratization and micro-management of pop-ups would largely defeat their purpose.

In the meantime, here are three guidelines for public sector innovators interested in further considering how pop-ups might work for you.

1. Pop-ups must be temporary. No matter how incredible the food is in a pop-up restaurant, no matter how many people are clamouring for reservations, there is always a close-out date. If something is worth sustaining, it should be folded into business as usual, not kept as a stand-alone.

2. Pop-ups are experiential. There is a world of difference between presenting a new idea in a well-lit boardroom, and introducing a new idea through a pop-up. The pop-up should be designed with the whole user experience in mind, be highly interactive, and persuade through sensory stimulation (such as through high-end visuals rather than tired powerpoint slides).

3. The success of pop-ups depends on hype. Most pop-ups would not reach a critical mass of people without building suspense and anticipation in advance, followed by ongoing praise and reminders throughout the operation phase. This can be achieved through digital communications, although other forms of marketing can be effective too – such as targeted word-of mouth advertising at events where potential consumers can be reached.

A Public Policy Renaissance?

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We often hear that we live in a time of unprecedented complexity. What is equally true, but less said, is that we also live in time of unprecedented opportunity to effect change in a complex world.

In Alberta, as well as in other jurisdictions, we are in many ways experiencing a renaissance. Characterized by individual empowerment on a scale unimaginable even five years ago, the entrenchment of the “creative class”, and the digitization of life as we know it, this is a period of historic change and significance. It is undoubtedly a great time to be an idealist, an intellectual, or an entrepreneur – even from within a large bureaucracy.

Yet in the midst of this incredibly productive, innovation-yielding, revolutionary chaos, many of our greatest challenges persist. Income disparities, poverty, homelessness, and climate change are just a few of our biggest concerns today.

These challenges are, indeed, highly complex. As Dr. Ralph Stacey’s well-known model of complexity describes, complex problem are unknowable, and there is a lack of consensus about how to alter the status quo.

Last fall we started a project called “Institutions of Complex Problem Solving.” What started out as an interesting research endeavour – albeit with a stuffy title – focused on administration and process quickly became an inspiring tour of the minds at work in our provincial public service.

The result is a draft discussion paper that sheds light on the ways in which Alberta’s public sector has grappled with complex public policy issues over the last decade, and suggests a path forward for the next.

I decided to release this report in draft form because I would like to create an opportunity for anyone with an opinion on this topic to have a say. Policy and complexity are topics near and dear to the hearts and minds of many people in the Steeves Advisory community, and this paper is by no means intended to corner the market on interesting things to say about them. If you disagree with anything the report contains, or think something needs to be added, please let us know.

We plan to remove the draft watermark sometime this spring, but there is no real limit on the amount of time we’ll allow for comments. That said, if you’d like us to change something before the watermark comes off, please let us know by the end of March. Once we firm up the content, we’ll let you know more about where we plan to take the project from here.